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New book features words and works of Haudenosaunee, Wabanaki artists
By Gale Courey Toensing
Story Published: Oct 27, 2008
Story Updated: Oct 24, 2008
GARDINER, Maine – A beautiful new book from Tilbury House Publishers in Maine showcases the words and artistic productions of more than 35 artists from the Wabanaki and Haudenosaunee confederacies.
“North by Northeast: Wabanaki, Akwesasne Mohawk, and Tuscarora Traditional Arts,” created by folklorist Kathleen Mundell, brings together her own writings in collaboration with those of tribal members and several of the artists, whose comments reveal how their work and lives weave intricately talk about their work and lives are integrally interwoven with their cultural traditions and place. Nearly 200 stunning photographs illustrate virtually every page of the 128-page book.
With a B.A. in literature from the State University of New York College at Purchase and a master’s in folklore from the University of Indiana – Bloomington, Mundell has been involved with the arts, folklore, ethnographic marketing, cultural preservation and exhibit work. She has been working with traditional American Indian artists for more than 15 years.
“As a folklorist, I’ve always been interested in hearing what artists and community members have to say, and in bringing these different perspectives to a larger audience. ‘North by Northeast’ is written in this collaborative spirit,” she writes in the introduction.
The book provides an in-depth view of how contemporary artists in the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac communities of the Wabanaki Confederacy and in the Mohawk and Tuscarora communities of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy continue to practice the traditional arts of basketmaking, beadwork, birch-bark canoe making and wood carving.
Traditional art forms found in Haudenosaunee homes include beadwork, basketry, stone and wood carving, corn husk dolls, pottery, lacrosse sticks and traditional clothing. Mohawk writers Sue Ellen Herne and Lynne Williamson write in the essay “Haudenosaunee Traditional Arts: A Glimpse into our House.”
“Deeply rooted in our experience of place, traditional arts encourage cooperation, nurture community-wide ties, provide us with things we use on a daily basis, and connect us to the knowledge and customs of our ancestors.”
The reader learns how Haudenosaunee baskets and beadwork weave practicality with symbolism. Henry Arquette, a famous Akwesasne Mohawk basketmaker, specializes in ienon’stohare’takhwa, or corn-washer baskets, an ancient form whose open-twill weave and wide-spaced bottom allows for washing hulls from corn kernels that have been boiled with hardwood ashes to release the indigestible hulls.
Corn-washer baskets are some of the oldest styles around and have been used for centuries, the women write.
Beyond the beauty and practicality of the baskets, the act of basket making brings people together, said Akwesasne Mohawk basketmaker Salli Benedict.
“When we gather to make baskets, we speak our language, share our culture, tell stories of the past, and share ideas for the future.”
Haudenosaunee beadwork also transcends beauty and practicality to incorporate symbolism from tribal culture and traditions. The dome design seen frequently in beadwork symbolizes “the sky of our natural world and the sky world above from which this world was created. During social and ceremonial gatherings we wear these symbols on our clothing as reminders of our worldview,” Herne and Williamson write.
In an essay, “Wabanaki Traditional Arts: From Old Roots to New Life,” Penobscot basketmaker Jennifer Neptune writes about how the European invasion forced changes in traditional life.
“The forests, fish and animals the Wabanaki had depended on for thousands of years were decimated, and our people found themselves forced to adapt to an economy based on cash. Through these incredibly hard times, the Wabanaki turned within, to their art and creativity in order to survive.”
Creative and as resilient as the ash splints used to form their baskets, the Wabanaki communities used the changes forced upon them to enhance and expand their artistic productions. From the 1700s on, the communities made and sold baskets and other traditional items such as herbal medicines, birch-bark boxes, beadwork and elaborate carvings in places as far away as Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
“Beadworkers took the ancient designs that in the past had been painted or painstakingly stitched in porcupine quills, and used silk ribbon and beads to transform them into exquisitely beaded clothing, moccasins, hats, bags, watch pockets, tea cozies and pincushions. ... Traditional artists became bridges between what had been and what was yet to be,” Neptune wrote.
“North by Northeast” features a section on traditional birch bark arts. The bark of the white birch tree was used for wigwams, canoes, baskets, quivers, buckets, cooking utensils and containers for collecting maple syrup.
“You spend an enormous amount of time in the woods searching for the right tree,” said Barry Dana, a Penobscot who specializes in traditional winter-bark buckets traditionally used as food storage containers. “I’ve actually come across white birch that someone peeled 40 or 50 years earlier. My first thought was, ‘This is my ancestors.’ I’m out here doing what they did and I get a big kick out of that.”
For more information about “North by Northeast,” visit www.tilburyhouse.com.